Why Is The Hurt Locker Primed to Win 'Best Picture'?

Why is the Iraq film The Hurt Locker a strong contender to win the Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Director Oscars at Sunday night's ceremony? Because The Hurt Locker is the first major Iraq movie to be an actual movie -- not a celluloid op-ed piece.

Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner owns The Hurt Locker as a funny, cocky, testosterone-fueled member of the Army's explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team. Staff Sergeant William James' job is to defuse hidden roadside booby traps before they explode. Marching through the dusty streets in a shock-deflecting suit that looks like something from Apollo 13, Renner somehow makes this uniform look cool.

Kathryn Bigelow, the action-movie vet who directed this film with full-on bravado and a Hitchcockian knack for building suspense, has been applauded by the critics. So that's one strike against it. But if you read the critics very carefully, they're frustrated by exactly the qualities that make the film such an impressive achievement. Writing in the New York Times, for instance, A.O. Scott sniffed that the film is "a little evasive" because it's "not necessarily about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, mind you" and depicts "men who risk their lives every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the desert beyond" who are "too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there."

In other words: too bad this movie couldn't have jammed in a few conversations in which the troops deride Donald Rumsfeld, a sequence that proves that U.S. troops are puppets of Halliburton, or (at very least) a couple of ironic shots of that "Mission Accomplished" banner.

As the documentaries on the Iraq war show, soldiers do occasionally discuss these matters in the field, but mostly in passing. They're not obsessed by them to anywhere near the degree that the media are. Why? Because as experienced combat vets they don't expect things to go perfectly, they're trained to respect the chain of command, and (above all) they overwhelmingly support the cause, support President Bush, and know that the job is far more important than flapping their gums about politics. Soldiers, in other words, are soldiers, and that is exactly what The Hurt Locker depicts them to be.